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Rosemont Mine's parent Hudbay Minerals to start drilling on west slope of Santa Ritas
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Rosemont Mine's parent Hudbay Minerals to start drilling on west slope of Santa Ritas

While fighting in court to keep its planned Rosemont Mine alive, Hudbay Minerals Inc. plans to start exploratory drilling Thursday on the other side of the Santa Ritas to see if future mining there makes economic sense.

The Canadian company will kick off a drilling effort lasting at least three to six months in areas of historic mining, some dating back more than a century. This will be the first drilling by Hudbay on the west slope of the Santa Ritas; the company plans to drill on both sides of the mountain range.

After that, “We will know much more and have a better understanding if there is justification to continue,” Andre Lauzon, vice president of Hudbay Arizona Business Unit, told the Green Valley News in an interview posted online Sept. 19.

Conducting additional mining beyond Rosemont would likely bring more jobs to the area, on top of 600 high-paying, full-time jobs planned for Rosemont.

It would also likely bring additional environmental controversy, on top of a massive legal and political conflict over Rosemont that has dragged on 13 years.

Hudbay would not answer any questions from the Arizona Daily Star about its planned drilling, saying it had no additional comment beyond what Lauzon told the Green Valley News.

The company plans to drill 20 holes on its private land, lying west and northwest from the Rosemont site that sits just off the east slope of the Santa Ritas. The holes will be drilled in two general areas.

One will cover lands straddling the ridgeline that separates the Santa Ritas’ east and west sides. The other will include lands lying a bit north and northwest of the first area.

The drilling will be done near at least eight historic mining sites, dating to the days of the old Helvetia-Rosemont District where many copper mines operated between 1875 and 1923, maps of the area show.

Some of the maps are contained in a recently published Arizona Geological Survey article on historic mining in that district, written by longtime mining geologist David Briggs.

The drilling will involve grading two new roads and improving some existing ones to gain access to these sites, Hudbay told the Green Valley newspaper.

Hudbay’s announcement of the drilling caused significant concern among mine opponents. That’s not least because if the drilling ever led to mining, it would for the first time make that activity visible from the town of Sahuarita and the unincorporated community of Green Valley, both growing areas.

“Hudbay should be concerned about a number of things. They have all along tried to pacify Green Valley and Sahuarita that this would not be a problem for them,” because Rosemont won’t be visible west of the mountains, said Gayle Hartmann, president of the opposition group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. “It’s now going to change.”

In Lauzon’s Green Valley News interview, he said it will be difficult to see the drill rig with the naked eye from Sahuarita, but it might be visible with the aid of binoculars on a few locations, particularly those at higher elevations.

Mining on the west slope of the Santa Ritas will require additional water, which Hartmann said will put more pressure on the aquifer near Sahuarita, where the mining company already plans to pump for groundwater for Rosemont.

“It’s a precarious groundwater situation now. If they proceed on mining on the west side, it is going to deplete that water table even more,” Hartmann said.

At the same time, opponents most likely can’t do much to stop the company from mining its private land if it chooses to operate only there.

The real potential for additional controversy would come if the company also moved to get Forest Service approval to dispose of its waste rock and tailings on federal land. That’s the issue now most at play in the continued Rosemont legal conflict.

Hudbay also gave Pima County’s Department of Environmental Quality advance notice of its drilling plans on Sept. 10. At that time, it applied for and received a routine permit that’s required for any kind of industrial operation that could generate “fugitive” dust.

That’s dust that isn’t emitted from a stack or pipe and often comes from ground disturbance.

The permit covers activities on 40-plus acres near the intersection of Santa Rita Road and National Forest Road 505, also known as Helvetia Road.

In notifying Pima County of the company’s drilling plans, Hudbay’s David Krizek said exploration activities and support activities such as road maintenance will be conducted between Sept. 16 this year and Jan. 15, 2021.

The permit requires Hudbay to take mitigation steps to insure its activities don’t generate dust, said PCDEQ Director Ursula Nelson.

The fact that the company plans to build water and power lines near the Santa Ritas for Rosemont played into its decision to do the upcoming drilling, Lauzon told the Green Valley News.

The lines are planned for along Santa Rita Road, and the drilling is planned for near that road, Hudbay’s Pima County permit shows.

Among the questions Hudbay would not respond to from the Star were whether it would also use public land for mining or waste disposal operations that resulted from the drilling.

It also declined to say if it would, if this drilling uncovered economically good copper deposits, attach any mining plans for these lands to its existing Rosemont plan, or file for a separate plan.

If it lumped this area with its Rosemont plan, that would likely trigger a revision of the mine’s environmental impact statement, meaning more delays for that embattled, nearly $2 billion construction project.

This drilling will happen as Hudbay and all other parties to the protracted Rosemont Mine controversy prepare for an upcoming hearing on Rosemont before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

That court is expected to hear appeals by Hudbay and the U.S. government of a July 2019 ruling by U.S. District Judge James Soto blocking the mine from construction.

Legal briefs have been filed by attorneys for both sides in that case, along with separate friend-of-the-court briefs filed by various groups and parties allied with the company and its environmentalist and tribal adversaries.

The Green Valley News asked Lauzon if he saw the upcoming drilling as a path to a possible alternative to Rosemont if it remains tied up in court. He replied: “Hudbay is fully committed to building and operating the Rosemont Project once the appeal process has been completed.

“Before we can make any announcements on future plans for operations, we must determine if it is economically feasible to extract minerals from these exploration sites. First we need to understand what is on our property before we speculate,” he said.

Charles Stack, who lives in the Quail Creek development east of Green Valley, said he doesn’t think anyone could try to excavate the Santa Ritas’ west slope and get away with it.

“The property value impact on this region would be huge,” said Stack, who himself works as a mining consultant for other companies. “We don’t have the infrastructure, the roads down here, to rumble copper concentrate away from there. It makes no sense to me.”

Other questions about the drilling from the Star that Hudbay would not answer included:

  • What new road or roads will be built? Where would the roads start and end, and how long would they be, approximately, in road miles?
  • How close will the new drilling be conducted to the Rosemont site?
  • If Hudbay decides these lands contain economically recoverable minerals, how long after the exploration is done would it be before the company files a mining plan with the Forest Service for this project?
  • If Hudbay needs to pump more groundwater, will it be able to find additional CAP water to recharge into the aquifer to compensate for such pumping, beyond what it’s already obtained for Rosemont? Where will it find that water, given the increasing pressure on Colorado River resources and the ongoing drought?

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 349-0350. On Twitter@tonydavis987


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